By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
So at 5:30 a.m. March 20, 1999, Hernandez left Thee Dollhouse with Jeanette and took her to the seedy, one-story Villager Lodge Olympia Motel, where he had been staying for three weeks. Room 121 was drab and cramped, with boxes of stolen electronics stacked atop one another. Pastel floral comforters covered two full-size beds.
There, prosecutors say, the ex-Marine-turned-crook raped and strangled Jeanette. He tore cartilage in her neck, bruised her legs and right breast, bumped her head, cut her mouth, and shoved an object — likely a wine cooler bottle — into her anus. Then he bound her wrists and ankles, packed her into a Sony stereo box, and transported her lifeless body north in a borrowed blue Mazda Navajo SUV. Finally he tossed the box into the Everglades, expecting the alligators to take care of the rest.
After Orlando Maytin fished the body from the water, news of the murder flickered across television screens from Miami to New York.
At 11 a.m. that hot, clear Sunday, helicopters hovered over the murky canal along Alligator Alley, shooting photos of the crime scene. A parking lot just west of the otherwise peaceful fishing hole didn't stay empty for long. One by one, detectives, reporters, and medical examiners arrived. Standing on the shoreline, Broward Sheriff's Office Det. Frank Ilarraza watched divers fish the corpse from the water. The black-haired, bushy-mustached detective noticed white towels stained with blood floating around Jeanette's body. He jotted something on a notepad.
Then a radio call came in, reporting that men on a raft had discovered a black backpack 10 miles away, near Mile Marker 41. The bag, an officer told Ilarraza, was embroidered with a Dr. Seuss logo. Inside it a business card in bold letters read, "Thee Dollhouse."
With a Polaroid photo of the corpse, the detective headed for Sunny Isles. He arrived at the Thee Dollhouse at 8:30 p.m. and showed the picture of Jeanette to club manager Marty Blumquist. "Oh, God," Blumquist answered. "Yeah, that's her."
That night, the Smith family sat around a table at Mama Mia's Italian restaurant in Davie, twirling pasta with forks. They passed a plate of baked ziti and toasted Ray Smith, who was celebrating a birthday. But there was an empty spot. "This isn't like Jeanette," Ray said with a wrinkled brow. "Not showing up like this."
A few hours later, Krissy headed back to the empty Pembroke Pines apartment she shared with Jeanette. Soon Detective Ilarraza arrived with the Polaroid. "I lost it," Krissy recalls. She screamed, pulled down all the curtains, held her head in her hands. Then, eyes all raw and damp, she called her parents. "Jeanette ... in a box. Dead," was all she could muster.
"No!" Ray cried. He stepped out of bed but collapsed onto the floor.
Ilarraza soon learned more about the night of the murder. Helen McDonald, Thee Dollhouse's self-styled house mother who did dancers' hair and makeup, said she saw Jeanette backstage after her shift. She was counting out $1,400 and playfully fanning herself with the cash, which she credited to "one good customer." A bouncer reported escorting Jeanette and Hernandez to her black Mazda not long before sunrise. And a waitress at Denny's about a mile from the strip joint told the detective she served Hernandez and Jeanette breakfast after the two had left the club.
On March 26, after receiving wiretapped phone conversations from the FBI, detectives arrived at the Villager Motel in Sunny Isles. Hernandez had checked out four days earlier. In Hernandez's room, Ilarraza "observed several pieces of paper, which were located on top of the microwave oven," according to an investigative report. One of them, a receipt from The Sharper Image in Sunrise, caught his attention. It was billed to Hernandez for a Sony mini stereo system.
It bore the same model name — and serial number — as the box in which Jeanette was found. (Hernandez contends the evidence was planted.)
Ilarraza noted the white motel towels were "identical to the ones found in the water." Detectives then gathered samples of tiny blood spots from the carpet.
The next day, Broward cops received a strange phone call. The person asked to remain anonymous and then claimed to know what happened to "the girl found in the box." He named two guilty parties: Francisco Santana and Enrique Estevez. These men "tortured women," the caller said, by "sticking bottles, walking sticks, or whatever" into their anuses and forcing them "to perform oral sex."
Ilarraza recognized the voice from wiretapped conversations. It belonged to Ariel Hernandez.
Gambino boss Freddy Massaro called a meeting the next day. He told two criminal associates that Hernandez was "bringing too much heat" and "had to go," according to prosecutors. The three men planned to inject Hernandez with cocaine to make it look like an accidental overdose.
The following day at 9 a.m., Broward detectives and Sunny Isles Beach Police officers arrived at a quiet apartment at 172nd Street and Collins Avenue. They knocked on the front door, and Tammy Bubel, Hernandez' s girlfriend, opened it and let them in. Cops awoke Hernandez and brought the couple, in separate cars, to BSO headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.